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Hearing Color: Yu Fei'an's Pigeon Paintings in Modern Beijing

Lisa Claypool, University of Alberta
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellow, 2016–2017


Yu Fei’an, Doves, c. 1951–1952. Mactaggart Art Collection. © 2004 University of Alberta Museums, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

Yu Fei’an’s (1888–1959) compendia of bird paintings are equally compendia of colors. The switch from dove to woodpecker in his Gongbi huaniao xuanji (Selection of fine-line bird-and-flower paintings; 1959) is a switch from thinnest gray to the fattest red. Yu linked such explorations into color to ancient ink paintings and to the silvery browns and matte green threads of embroideries. After all, from the establishment of the socialist People’s Republic of China in 1949, it was politically expedient to position ink painting as more than a feudal bourgeois practice. The folk—represented by the craft of embroidery—mattered. The materiality of Yu’s colors matched the materiality of the socialist revolution.

There is more to Yu Fei’an’s colors, though. To a measured extent, Yu pursued seeing in a naked way on its own merits, so that a pigeon could be rendered as the bird itself, a creature occupying space, as did the ink brush composed of a bamboo tube and animal hair in his hand, or the thick sheet of paper spread before him as a painting surface. For instance, Yu dedicated himself for an entire year to the project of sketching pigeons on the streets of Beijing, annotating his pictures with descriptive language from ornithology. He sat in bitter wind and dust to capture the light on pigeon wings and the angle of the bodies as the birds launched themselves into the air. He labored at achieving minute fidelity in his use of color. His pictures and notes were published serially in the Beijing Chenbao (Morning Post), where he worked as a reporter, and then in 1928 as Dumen huange ji (Record of domestic pigeons at the capital gates).

Color-coded bird physiognomy was enthusiastically promoted by bird watchers and scientists. What made their perceptual practice especially distinctive as a modern science was a matter-of-fact acceptance that acute vision relied on sound. To hear was to see. Yet “hearing color”—seeing a bluebird flashing away out of the corner of an eye or seeing it in the mind’s eye by matching sound to color—also had its own nation-building logic. It had to do with the peculiarities of how bird call itself was heard and documented. As related by George D. Wilder, the first president of the Peking Natural History Society, in his 1926 presidential address:

An old teacher of kuan hua [official language] of mine, who was himself an ardent sportsman and knew his birds very well indeed, used to say to me with a kindly smile when I asked him the name of a bird whose note we heard: “Ask the bird himself. Birds call out their own names” [Niao tzu hu ch’i ming]. That is a hoopoe, hear him say: “hu po po, hu po po.” And there you have the cuckoo, “k’e ku, k’e ku,” and also the chick a dee dee, only in China it says tzu tzu hei’rh, and tzu tzu hei’rh is its name.

His salient points: a Chinese language teacher proposes that birds call their own names; people hear those names differently, depending on where they are from; documentation of bird call and name could be recorded and mapped—especially when heard as Chinese—onto the new linguistic boundaries of the nation represented through the alphabet in the Wade-Giles system of romanization. The half-hidden color of the bird, then, is made visible by its call; its call is made legible within the same “universal” alphabetic language system used to record the Chinese language.

In sum, Yu’s bird paintings embody political rhetoric about the socialist nation: through tactile and aural perception of color the pigeon is transformed into a cultural thing that weaves together folk and elites, and a migrating thing that flies away from those cultural meanings onto a “universal,” international stage. Still, this chapter in my book-length study on intersections of science and brush painting in early to mid-twentieth-century China questions the ways in which Yu’s paintings actively resisted cultural politics and political rhetoric. The challenge is to probe the limits of such interpretation. I instead ask: how do Yu’s paintings become sites for, and mediate, visceral contact with nature in order to suggest—to all beholders, then and now—modes of interacting with it?